Mobile Applications For Inventory Management, Data Collection And Workflow


Barcode System For Mobile Inventory: Making A Barcode Scanner Work With An Inventory Management Mobile Application

When scanning with a smartphone camera is not enough: how to connect a handheld barcode scanner to the mobile devices and make it work with your inventory management mobile application.

Mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) are perfect for managing inventory and tracking assets on site in real time. Normally you would use a smartphone or tablet camera for barcode scanning. However, scanning with a smartphone camera has its limitations. If you need a more sophisticated scanning option, you can use a handheld barcode scanner connected to a mobile device (iPhone, Android phone, iPad, Android tablet). This article discusses different ways of connecting a barcode scanner to the mobile devices, pluses and minuses of each approach, and how you can use a connected barcode scanner with your inventory management mobile application.

Using Smartphone Camera Vs Handheld Barcode Scanner For Inventory Scanning

As a rule, using a smartphone for barcode scanning is a good choice when you need to track inventory, collect data or fill out mobile forms in the field. You can do everything: scan barcodes, record inventory transaction, take photos, fill out mobile forms and collect signatures using just one device. You also do not need to purchase special barcode scanning hardware, which can be quite expensive. Your employees can use their own smartphones to track inventory, collect data and review information. And you will significantly reduce a learning curve for your employees, since they all know how to use a smartphone they own.

However, scanning with a smartphone camera has its limitations, and in some situations it is not a viable option. Such situations may include:

  • High Volume Inventory Transactions. You can scan faster using a traditional handheld barcode scanner than a smartphone camera. With a smartphone camera you need to focus the camera for each scan, which may add 1-2 seconds. This additional time makes no difference if your inventory transactions typically include only few items. However, if you routinely need to process high volume inventory or assets transactions for tens or hundreds of items at a time, gain in speed will be significant if you switch to a traditional hand-held barcode scanner.
  • Several Barcodes Close Together. Some items, have several barcodes placed close together (for example, an item may have SKU barcode a lot number barcode and a serial number barcode next to each other). If this is the case, you won't be able to focus a smartphone camera on a specific barcode that you need, unless you close the other barcodes with a piece of paper. You will not have problems scanning a correct barcode with a handheld barcode scanner.
  • Poorly Lit Warehouse Areas. Barcode scanners are more reliable than smartphone cameras in the low-light situations. If you need to process inventory transactions in the areas that do not have adequate lighting, using a handheld barcode scanner may be a better option.
  • Old 1D Barcodes. Smartphone cameras can read QR codes or traditional UPC barcodes without problems. However, there are some older 1D barcodes that smartphone cameras cannot read. If your assets or inventory items are already labeled with this kind of barcodes, it may make sense to use a handheld barcode scanner rather than re-label assets or inventory.

Even if you prefer to use handheld scanner for barcode scanning, you need to use a mobile device for other inventory and assets related tasks: processing inventory transactions, collecting and looking up data, filling out mobile forms, capturing images and signatures, etc. You can use either regular smartphone or a mobile computer, with latter being significantly more expensive. This article describes how you can connect handheld barcode scanner to the smartphones and tablets, what options do you have, and what are the other alternatives for processing of the high volume inventory transactions fast.

Connecting A HandHeld Barcode Scanner To The Mobile Device

What Type Of Barcode Scanner To Use

The most common types of barcode scanners on the market today are USB barcode scanners and bluetooth barcode scanners. USB scanners should be physically connected to the host via USB port, and therefore have very limited distance range. Bluetooth scanners are cordless, and generally have a distance range of 30 - 40 feet (10 - 13 meters).

USB scanners are generally less expensive, but are not a very good fit if you need to connect the scanner to a smartphone. You may be able to connect a USB barcode scanner to the android smartphone if you use USB adapter, but it certainly will be less convenient than wireless bluetooth barcode scanner. You also will be limited to using the scanner as a keyboard emulator (using so called "HID profile"), which, again, is not a very good option -- more on this later.

All in all, if you need to use barcode scanner with a smartphone, bluetooth barcode scanners are the best choice.

Several barcode scanning hardware companies sell smartphone sleds - barcode scanners that attach directly to a smartphone and make it one device. However, you will need to buy different sled for iPhone and Android smartphones (while the same bluetooth barcode scanner will work with both, plus iOS and Android tablets), and your mobile application will need to be natively integrated with the provider's API (e.g. mobile application that works with Zebra sled won't work with HoneyWell sled).

Barcode Scanner Connection Modes

You can connect bluetooth barcode scanner to the android or iOS mobile devices in one of the following modes:

  • HID - Human Interface Device - scanner interacts with the smartphone or tablet as a keyboard. You need to activate a text field in any application, then scan barcode - and scanned data will appear in the text field as if you have typed this information using a keyboard.
  • SPP - Serial Port Profile (Application Mode) - scanner internally interacts with the mobile application which is natively integrated with the attached barcode scanner. Scanned data is read and processed directly by the mobile application.

Barcode scanners on the market may support both modes or only HID mode. The cheaper barcode scanners often support only HID mode. It is important to note, that although the vendors tend to advertize it is a plus (works with any application, no integration required), HID mode is really not as good as it may sound. While it is true that it will work with any application that expects data input in the text field, you will need to do extra navigation and clicks to get back to the input field and focus it before each scan. This actually negates the "fast scanning" effect, so if your goal is to have fast continuous scanning you really need a barcode scanner that supports SPP mode. SPP mode provides much faster scanning and better user experience (see below for details).

If you plan to use bluetooth barcode scanner connected to a smartphone in SPP mode, you do need a mobile application that is natively integrated with the barcode scanner and can read scanned data directly. Practically all vendors who sell bluetooth barcode scanners supporting SPP profile have API for direct integration of their scanners with the mobile applications. Therefore, many mobile applications will work only with the specific barcode scanner brand(s) - the ones they are integrated with. When looking for the inventory management software with the supplementary mobile application, it is always a good idea to check with the vendor which barcode scanners are supported.

As of now, integration of iOS applications with barcode scanner using vendor's API is the only choice. iOS applications will usually support only a specific barcode scanner brand. Android applications can use either vendor's API or communicate with any bluetooth barcode scanner (or RFID scanner) via Android bluetooth API. Therefore, some Android mobile applications (for example QR Inventory) may work with any bluetooth barcode scanner.

HID or SPP Mode -- Which Is Better

As always, it depends on your specific situation. Here are pluses and minuses of both approaches to help you decide which one will work best for you:

Barcode Scanner In HID Mode -- Pluses

  • Usually cheaper than barcode scanners that support SPP mode.
  • You can scan in barcode or QR code into the input field of any application that expects item id to be entered.
  • You are not tied to any specific application and barcode scanner brand combination.

Barcode Scanner In HID Mode -- Minuses

  • You need to navigate back to input field and put it into application focus (click or tap on the input field) for each scan. If your goal is fast continuous scanning, you will not be able to achieve that.
  • With many scanners you will not be able to use an actual real keyboard while the scanner is connected. It means that if you are scanning inventory items for transaction, after you scan an item you cannot enter quantity until you disconnect the scanner.

Barcode Scanner In SPP Mode -- Pluses

  • Communicates directly with the mobile application, with no extra navigations or clicks.
  • If you need to process a high volume inventory transaction, all you need to do is scan one item after another -- each item will be instantly added to the transaction batch.
  • You can use a keyboard when scanner is connected (for example, to enter quantity of items).

Barcode Scanner In SPP Mode -- Minuses

  • Scanners that support SPP mode tend to be more expensive.
  • You need to use an application which is natively integrated with the bluetooth barcode scanner. Many inventory management applications do not have this capability.
  • You may be restricted to a specific application / barcode scanner brand combination.

Making Barcode Scanner Work With Your Inventory Management Mobile Application

Barcode Scanner Using HID Profile

If you plan to use barcode scanner connected to a smartphone in HID mode, all you need to do is pair barcode scanner with your smartphone. Once it is paired, you can scan in barcode data into any text input field of your application. For assets or inventory management application, presumably it will be a text field that expects item SKU, lot number or serial number.

In order to pair your scanner with the mobile device (iOS or Android), follow these steps:

  • Turn on the scanner
  • Make sure that the scanner is discoverable (unpaired from other devices). If you had paired the scanner with a different mobile device before, use vendor's instruction to unpair.
  • On your mobile device, go to settings and turn bluetooth on.
  • The phone will scan for the available devices, and your barcode scanner should appear in the list of devices.
  • Click on the barcode scanner listing and tap "Pair".
  • Barcode scanner status should change to "paired" or "connected".
  • After this is done, you can start using barcode scanner with the mobile applications on this device.

Barcode Scanner Using SPP (Application) Profile

First thing you need is to install a mobile application natively integrated with the barcode scanner you are using, or bluetooth barcode scanners in general (Android). Your further actions depend on the mobile application. Some applications will guide you through the scanner pairing and connection process, some will expect you to first pair the scanner yourself.

If an application vendor does not provide specific instructions and step by step instructions on pairing and connecting barcode scanner to the mobile device, you need to do it yourself. In this case, the first step would be to put barcode scanner in SPP mode. Follow instructions of the barcode scanner vendor to do this. Most of the time you will need to scan a command barcode provided by the vendor.

After scanner is in SPP mode, pair it with the mobile device as outlined in the HID mode section. The application will either provide a button to connect or disconnect the scanner, or it will connect the scanner automatically after paired scanner is detected.

After scanner is paired and connected, you can start working with th eapp to scan barcodes and the data will be processed according to the app'logic. For example, if you need to process a large inventory transaction, as a rule you will be able to scan barcodes one after another, and scanned items will be automatically added to the transaction. Transaction batch will be displayed on a smartphone screen to review, update quantity and make corrections if needed. Completed batch will be submitted to a back-end software for processing.

Alternatives To Using Barcode Scanners -- NFC Tags

If you need a fast continuous scanning, and would like to use mobile devices for processing inventory transactions, connecting a handheld barcode scanner to the mobile device is not your only option. You can use NFC tags that can be scanned by the smartphones, now both Android and iPhone (iPhone supports NFC tags reading starting with iPhone 7). You can find more information on NFC and its use in inventory and asset tracking in this blog article, and this article. In short, NFC tags are scanned by bringing a smartphone close (within an inch) to the tagged object. You do not need to click and focus a smartphone camera to scan. The scanning speed is comparable or even faster than a scanning speed of a handheld barcode scanner.

NFC tags are slightly more expensive than QR code labels, and harder to produce - but you won't need to spend money on purchasing barcode scanner, so it may be a feasible option.

Takeaways

If you need to combine mobile inventory management with an advanced barcode scanning, using bluetooth barcode scanner connected to a smartphone is a good option. You will be able to do fast uninterrupted scanning and still use all the capabilities of the mobile devices: ability to access and collect information, filling out mobile forms, taking photos, collecting signatures, submitting collected data to a centralized location in real time, and more.

Combination of any application with any barcode scanner, connected to a smartphone in a HID mode is possible but not very useful. The necessity to navigate to the text input field and activate it for each scan negates the effect of the fast scanning. It is likely that you will also not be able to use a keyboard when scanner is connected (depends on the scanner brand), which is very inconvenient if you need to scan in inventory, and then enter quantity, for example. You may find that scanning with a smartphone camera actually provides faster scanning and better user experience.

If you are after faster and more sophisticated scanning, use barcode scanner that supports SPP (application mode). This way you will be able to do fast uninterrupted scanning. You will also need a mobile application that supports native integration with the bluetooth barcode scanners. Keep in mind that applications for iOS platform (iPhones or iPads) should be integrated separately with each barcode scanner brand. If you are using iOS devices, do not purchase barcode scanners before you selected a software / mobile application and found out what scanners it supports.

Android applications in principle can be made to work with any bluetooth barcode scanner. Some of them (such as QR Inventory) do that, while others can work only with the specific brands. It is alaways a good idea to select an application first and then buy a barcode scanner recommended by the vendor.

Handheld barcode scanners are not the only way to achieve fast continuous scanning for high volume inventory transactions. You can use NFC tags and smartphones for reading them to achieve the same result.

 

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